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Google faces court action over Street View

Picture this: a Google Street View car on the streets of Lausanne

(Keystone)

Internet giant Google is facing legal action in Switzerland over its failure to meet demands for better privacy protection in its Street View service.

The federal data protection commissioner, Hanspeter Thür, said on Friday he was bringing a case against Google at the Federal Administrative Court to force the company to make changes to its application.

He explained that Google had rejected many of the recommendations he made immediately after Street View went online in the middle of August.

Faces and car registration plates were still not sufficiently blurred, and many pictures did not respect people's private sphere, Thür said during a news conference in the Swiss capital, Bern.

Google said it was disappointed by the move, and would fight the case "energetically". It said the service was very popular in Switzerland.

Street View Switzerland was mapped by cars equipped with masts carrying special cameras to photograph the streets of seven Swiss towns. Viewers can take virtual strolls round the towns and see whatever happened to be there at the time the pictures were taken.

The service has been criticised in several European countries for allowing individuals to be identified without their knowledge or consent – potentially exposing embarrassing facts about their private lives to the world. With nothing to identify the time the pictures were taken, people's actions were also too widely open to interpretation, according to the commissioner.

Thür, whose office has received nearly 150 complaints from individuals, said that in one case a person had been identified by a newspaper as a drug dealer based on a Street View shot. The person was in fact a local restaurant owner handing out leaflets.

Properly blurred

The data protection commissioner wants Google to ensure that all faces and car plates are sufficiently blurred, remove pictures of enclosed areas such as walled gardens and private streets, and declare at least one week in advance which town and cities it plans to photograph and post online.

"Faces and vehicle number plates are not made sufficiently anonymous from the point of view of data protection, especially in cases where the persons concerned are shown in sensitive locations, such as outside hospitals, prisons or schools," Thür told swissinfo.ch.

The commissioner requested in August that Google take "various measures to protect personal privacy in its Street View online service". He said on Friday that Google for the most part declined to comply with the requests, prompting him to take the matter to court.

Thür added though that he was not declaring war on Google, and that Street View could be a service that people would want to use. But he also pointed out that it also went beyond what people needed by attempting to provide blanket coverage for the whole country.

"It makes sense for places people like tourists might want to visit, but there is little reason to shoot pictures in residential areas," he said.

"The height from which the camera on top of the Google vehicle films – two metres 75cm - is also problematic," Thür pointed out. "It provides a view over fences, hedges and walls, with the result that people see more on Street View than can been seen by a normal passer-by in the street."

Google to contest

Google said in a statement that it was disappointed by the move. The California-based company believes Street View is legal and will "vigorously contest" the case, said Google's global privacy counsel Peter Fleischer.

The case could take up to a year before a decision is reached by the court, but there could be an immediate impact on the Street View service.

Thür has asked Google not to publish any new pictures as part of its service at least until the end of the year, but has stopped short of asking the company to shut it down.

"The court needs to be able to make its own appreciation of the case, and for that it needs Swiss pictures," the commissioner explained. "Looking at images of Paris or London wouldn't really be of any help."

Switzerland is not the only country taking a long and hard look at the Street View service, launched in 2007.

In July, Greek officials rejected a bid to photograph the nation's streets until more privacy safeguards were provided. In April, residents of one English village formed a human chain to stop a camera van, and in Japan the company agreed to reshoot views taken by a camera high enough to peer over fences.

Google also caved in to German demands to erase the raw footage of faces, house numbers, licence plates and individuals who have told authorities they do not want their information used in the service.

Scott Capper, swissinfo.ch

Google

California-based Google was co-founded by former Stanford University students Larry Page and Sergey Brin.

The company's search engine, still the heart of its business, first appeared in 1996. The company was incorporated in September 1998.

Google went public in 2004 and was worth $23 billion (SFr26 billion) at the time. In 2007 its market capitalisation was nearing $200 billion.

It has more than 50 offices in 200 countries and employs almost 20,000 full-time staff.

In 2004 Google launched its own free email service called Gmail and bought up a company that had developed the virtual globe programme that became Google Earth two years later.

Google launched Street View in the US in May 2007. The French Tour de France cycle race for Street View was the first release of Street View in Europe.

Since then the service has also become available for Japan, Australia, New Zealand, France, Spain, Italy and Britain.

The ultimate declared aim of Google is to provide street views of the whole world.

To use Street View you can either type an address or postcode into Google Maps and find a static photo of it, or you can drag an orange icon, called "Pegman" across the map and drop it wherever you like. The street has to be highlighted blue.

An image of the area will appear on the screen and you can then use arrows to rotate it.

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